Workers Vanguard No. 1042
21 March 2014
Womens Oppression and the Struggle for Liberation
A Marxist Analysis
(Young Spartacus pages)
We publish below a Spartacus Youth Club class given by comrade Laura Zamora in New York City on February 11.
When I was in high school, I drove around in my used 1986 Toyota Camry with a purple bumper sticker that read: “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.” This now makes me laugh, but at the time it spoke to my moral outrage that women were not on an equal playing field in society. Outrage over the lack of sexual freedom, limited abortion rights, lower wages, and the burden of housework to which women are subject. Disgust over the brutal institutions and cultural reflections of women’s oppression, like female genital mutilation, honor killings and the veil. Such a reality desperately demanded a change.
Little did I know then that feminism did not and could not offer a program for the liberation of women. Feminism aims largely to equalize the position of upper class women within the existing society by means of education and/or legislation. So, one T-shirt I had in high school had the picture of the capitol building and the words: “Send a woman to D.C. for a change.” The fact that Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama have done nothing to advance the interests of women or the oppressed would be a glaring understatement. No bourgeois politicians are allies in the fight for women’s rights because their class interests are primary. That includes preserving the main institution of women’s oppression, the repressive monogamous family under the system of capitalism. Bourgeois feminism has not, and never had, the goal of fundamentally challenging this class-divided, unequal society. In fact, the first challenge to the sexual division of labor in society (the supposed “innate” differentiation between men’s and women’s roles) did not come from liberal feminists, but from socialists.
Understanding the oppression of women through the lens of Marxism requires an examination of the material—economic and institutional—way in which society is organized. Marx said, “‘Liberation’ is an historical and not a mental act, and it is brought about by historical conditions.” Society’s mores and culture—on questions of marriage, the family, the roles of men, women and children—are not preordained, but must be studied in their man-made historical context. Emancipation means putting an end to the economic system of capitalism. Thus, for Marxists, the liberation of women cannot be separated from the liberation of all the exploited and oppressed. This means the abolition of private property through a series of socialist revolutions. That in turn would lay the basis for an international collectivized economy based on the highest level of technology and science, enabling the replacement of the social functions of the family.
Utopian Egalitarianism and Women’s Liberation
Before Marx and Engels came on the scene in the latter half of the 19th century, radicals and dissenters had put forward different critiques of sexual oppression. In the mid 1600s during the English Civil War, there was a group called the Ranters, which came from the working lower classes. You could call them part of a “nonconformist” movement of sexual radicals because they critiqued marriage. They were really a religious sect that rejected the established church and state institutions along with the concept of immorality. They preached free love and advocated having multiple sexual partners. (Not exactly the same type of religious sects we see today, which mostly tout fundamentalist, bigoted filth.) The Ranters’ unconventional views on the family led them to be accused of “wife swapping,” but in fact these views reflected the practical way dispossessed peasants—who were mobile and had no property to bind them—lived.
When we move on to the 18th century Enlightenment we see how humanism and the desire for a social order founded on reason cultivated a different view of women’s role. One of the first books I read in Women’s Studies was Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), considered to be a classic marking the beginning of modern feminist thought. Wollstonecraft was part of a circle of English radical democrats which included William Blake and Tom Paine. Their political lives were dominated by the French Revolution and their ideas reflected the period where there was a great push for political equality, progress and virtue.
They were also limited by that period. Wollstonecraft’s writings did nothing to challenge domesticity; men should be virtuous according to the laws of God. The idea was to appeal to men for more education for middle-class women, so they could be more loving and efficient housewives, like good June Cleavers. Here’s a quote which I remember made me think, wow this old-style feminism is messed up! “Would men but generously snap our chains, and be content with rational fellowship instead of slavish obedience, they would find us more observant daughters, more affectionate sisters, more faithful wives, more reasonable mothers—in a word, better citizens.”
Before we move on to the 19th century, how many of you have seen the famous 1830 painting of “Liberty Leading the People” by the French Romantic artist Delacroix? It’s the one where Liberty is shown as this kind of robust goddess-figure, this woman of the people, striding bare-breasted with the French flag in one hand and a musket in the other. I remember reading an article in a feminist journal that asked if this painting was sexist or revolutionary. It’s outrageous that there were people debating whether this work of art—which commemorates the July 1830 Revolution in France that toppled King Charles X—was “objectifying women” because she was half-naked.
Let’s turn back to the Marx quote: “‘Liberation’ is an historical and not a mental act, and it is brought about by historical conditions.” Delacroix’s painting is interesting because the ideals of “liberty, equality and fraternity” of the French Revolution were incompatible with the reality of the unequal capitalist system. Though “Liberty” was not a symbol for the emancipation of women, during this time the general struggle for an egalitarian society became more intertwined with the struggle for women’s liberation. Let’s look at the material reasons for this.
By the 1840s, there was a change in England and France, as women began entering the world of waged work outside of the household. The family was being transformed due to women’s increased economic independence. The Utopian socialists came on the scene. You can read more about Charles Fourier, Robert Owen and Saint-Simon in Engels’ work, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific. Unlike Wollstonecraft, the socialist Charles Fourier was intensely hostile to the patriarchal family, which he viewed as sexually oppressive. Fourier put forward the idea of “socialist communities” and the complete reconstruction of society. He was uniquely responsible for making the demand for the liberation of women through the abolition of the nuclear family an integral part of the socialist program which the young Marx and Engels inherited.
Flora Tristan—who is often erroneously called the founder of modern feminism—was really a socialist who fought for women workers and argued that the oppression of women was directly related to the oppression of the working class. She stated: “Almost the entire world is against me, men because I am demanding the emancipation of women, the propertied classes because I am demanding the emancipation of the wage earners.” Not only that, she advocated an international workers organization over 20 years before the foundation of Marx’s International Workingmen’s Association, the First International.
Proletarian Struggle for Women’s Rights
By 1848, Marx and Engels produced the Communist Manifesto. This is the classic text where they laid out the differences between the propertied bourgeoisie and the propertyless proletariat; they argued that the way to replace old bourgeois society—with its classes and class antagonisms—is through a proletarian revolution, leading eventually to the “free development of all.” They also argued for the abolition of the family—reduced by the bourgeoisie, as they wrote, “to a mere money relation”—and to put an end to “prostitution both private and public.”
Some 40 years later, Engels wrote The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State. This really provides the historical analysis of the class origins of the patriarchal family and women’s oppression. Engels’ work is subtitled “In the Light of the Researches of Lewis H. Morgan.” Morgan was an anthropologist who lived with and studied the Iroquois Indians and his seminal work Ancient Society dealt with the stages of primitive man. Most importantly, it represented a breakthrough by proving how the monogamous family emerged with the origin of private property—in other words, the family is a social phenomenon. Other leading socialists like Clara Zetkin and August Bebel were also very influenced by Morgan’s groundbreaking research. In case you’re curious, Morgan also influenced Darwin.
Engels describes how early hunter- gatherer society was arranged in clans. Marxists call this period of human society “primitive communism” because classes did not exist and society was generally egalitarian. In this society, all descent and blood relationships were determined through the mother alone, a matriline, also called “mother right” and members were looked after by the group. There was a division of labor between men and women: men did most of the hunting and women did most of the gathering, because women’s activity had to allow for pregnancy, nursing and childcare. But both sexes worked to produce the goods necessary for livelihood so they were equal. This explodes the myth that the monogamous family is the only one that has ever existed and that society has always been divided into classes. Engels details the evolution of marriage: how societies had group marriage where all members of one age group were married to each other, which was later replaced by pairing marriage and then ultimately by the patriarchal family.
The critical change in the position of women occurred as a result of the domestication of animals and the development of agriculture. Improved technology and tools made possible the accumulation of a surplus of grain and meat that meant people could live beyond day-to-day survival. Such new wealth led to the development of the first great class division in society, that between master and slave. In ancient society, slaves were generally obtained as a result of war with other tribes. As the men had traditionally owned the hunting implements, it was now they who owned the new implements of labor and thus the surplus product. Women could share in the enjoyment, but they had no part in the ownership. The domestic labor of the woman, which was previously a social service granting her equality, no longer counted. Engels stated: “The overthrow of mother-right was the world historical defeat of the female sex. The man took command in the home also; the woman was degraded and reduced to servitude, she became the slave of his lust and a mere instrument for the production of children.”
So alongside the cleavage of society into classes, the separate, private family became the economic unit of society. The new economic surplus needed to be secured, and it could be done through inheritance, the guarantee that wealth would be passed down through the father to a select and privileged group. This marks the start of the patriarchal, monogamous family, created with the explicit purpose of insuring the paternity of the children and dictating strict measures to enforce women’s sexual chastity before marriage and fidelity after. Why else should it matter how many people a woman has slept with or who is the father of her children? With the advent of the patriarchal family, monogamy only applies to women. Adultery and prostitution arise as complementary institutions.
In this society now split between freemen and slaves, exploiting rich and exploited poor, weapons became monopolized by bodies of armed men, what is referred to as the state. While appearing to stand above classes, the state in reality is the prime instrument whereby the dominant economic class protects its property rights and class rule. The ancient state was that of the defense of the slave owners against the slaves; the feudal state was for the nobility to repress the peasant serfs; the modern “democratic” capitalist state with its cops, courts, prisons and laws is the instrument of the capitalist class to exploit and repress the working class.
When you think about how capitalism maintains the oppression of women, it’s useful to consider the tripod, the three major props: First, the state (the armed instrument maintaining the rule of the bourgeoisie); second, the family (the means by which private property is passed on in the case of bourgeois families and where the next generation of workers is raised in the case of proletarian families); and third, organized religion—which thrives on ignorance, enforces backwardness and superstition and inculcates obedience to the established order. The family, together with religion, serves to socially regiment us, to instill a “morality” which forbids anything that deviates one inch from married, heterosexual sex for procreation only. Anti-woman and anti-gay bigotry stem from the strong sexual stereotypes that are required by the traditional division of labor in the family. The repression of youth arises because under capitalism children are considered the legal property of their parents.
We call for full democratic rights for gays, including the right of gay marriage and divorce. We call for the decriminalization of prostitution because the act of performing sex for money is not a crime from the standpoint of the working class, either on the part of the prostitute or of the client. Prostitution is something we regard as a “crime without a victim,” like drug use, gambling, pornography, and gay sex—all activities that are either illegal or heavily regulated under capitalist law. In regards to youth, we call for lowering the legal age of adulthood with free education and a stipend for those who don’t want to stay at home. We are opposed to “squeal rules” that deny minors the right to an abortion without parental consent. We are also opposed to the reactionary age of consent laws that deny minors the right to decide if they want to have sex. The only guideline that ought to exist in sexual relations is that of effective consent. If both parties knowingly consent, there is no crime.
Our positions on sex are mainly in the negative, that is, we want the government to keep its nose (and any other part) out of the bedroom. Sexuality is personal, not political. The capitalist rulers are the ones who politicize sexuality, victimizing those who defy the norms. We defended Michael Jackson against alleged “child molestation” charges. As we wrote at the time: “who better [for the state to target] than a black man who sounds very feminine, wears makeup, looks whiter than many ‘pedigreed’ whites and openly professes a love for sharing his bed with pubescent, mostly white, boys?” (see “Stop Vendetta Against Michael Jackson,” WV No. 818, 23 January 2004). We oppose the persecution of anyone who engages in consensual intergenerational sex; uniquely on the left we defend NAMBLA, the North American Man-Boy Love Association, which fights for the rights of youth and opposes age of consent laws.
Marxism vs. Feminism
Our views on special oppression and on sex are radically different from feminists and liberal Democrats as well as those who falsely call themselves socialists or even revolutionaries. The capitalist Democratic Party, despite its pretense to being a defender of gay people, is a staunch promoter of anti-gay “family values” and brutal anti-sex witchhunts. For decades, the Democrats opposed gay marriage. In the last few years, as nearly everyone has jumped onto the gay marriage bandwagon, Obama shifted from staunchly defending DOMA (the Defense of Marriage Act) to now defending same-sex marriage legislation. He was absurdly labeled the first gay president—which no doubt got him some votes among the petty-bourgeois gay rights milieu.
You may have noticed the Grammys in January had this mass wedding ceremony and rapper Macklemore performed his gay rights anthem. The context behind gay marriage acceptance is contradictory. Of course anyone ought to have the right to marry. We socialists fight for a society in which no one needs to be forced into a legal straitjacket in order to get medical benefits, visitation rights, custody of children, immigration rights, or any of the many privileges this capitalist society grants to those, and only those, who are in “holy matrimony.” At the same time, the gay marriage campaign is not about people being more open to “free love,” but largely about bourgeois respectability, trying to fit same-sex relationships into a “family values” context. In almost all of Obama’s comments on the matter, you will notice that he highlights gays being in “committed” and “monogamous” relationships and praises their good parenting.
Marriage rights or not, gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgenders will continue to face deadly bigotry in this homophobic society. Insofar as the monogamous family remains the central social institution oppressing women, anti-gay bigotry flows from the need to punish any deviations from this patriarchal structure. The history of monogamous marriage in the U.S. reveals its use as a tool of government control, where those deemed “inferior” were denied marriage rights, including of course, black slaves, Native Americans and polygamous Mormons. Still, why anyone not under social pressure or economic duress would voluntarily enter the bonds of matrimony is somewhat of a mystery. I like quoting the ACT UP activist Jim Eigo who had it right on this question: “Why are current mainstream gay organizations working to strike a bargain with straight society that will make some queers less equal than others?... Marriage has no more place in efforts to achieve equality than slavery or the divine right of kings. At this juncture in history, wouldn’t it make more sense for us to try to figure out how to relieve heterosexuals of the outdated shackles of matrimony?”
In class society, the ruling class which owns the means of production also owns the production of ideas, so mostly what you see on the left is a reflection of this moralistic social climate which, in the U.S., has a “Christian values” bent. The feminists are notorious for lining up with some of the most virulent reactionaries, allying with religious fundamentalists calling to regulate pornography and sexual relations, relying on the repressive state to “protect” women. The anti-porn, anti-sex campaign has been adopted by the Maoists of the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), also known as the “Bob Avakian fan cult.” In its “End Pornography” campaign, the RCP claims that pornographic images are the cause of rape, murder and other violent crimes against women. It also says that U.S. culture has recently been “pornified,” as shown by—what else?—teen sexting and pole-dancing classes. This is nothing other than the age-old nonsense that “women are victims and can’t possibly enjoy sex”—or porn for that matter. Echoing the Pope, the RCP for years raised the slogan for “stable monogamous relationships between men and women,” and until somewhat recently disallowed gays in their organization.
The reformist left’s illusions in the capitalist Democrats as the so-called “friends of the oppressed” are very acute in the case of abortion. Feminists transformed the fight for abortion rights into a sanitized “pro-choice” movement that is completely reliant on the ballot box and mostly concerned with preserving formal abortion rights for white upper- and middle-class women. Meanwhile, attacks against abortion rights in the U.S. have escalated tremendously in the last two decades. From 2010 to 2013, abortion providers were forced to shut down at the fastest rate since the time of Roe v. Wade in 1973. There are fewer than 2,000 physicians who offer abortions, and nearly 90 percent of counties in the U.S. have no abortion provider. The recent film After Tiller shows the heroic struggle of four of the last remaining late-term (third trimester) abortion doctors in this country.
The assault on abortion not only takes the form of the reign of terror and murders of doctors by anti-abortion bigots and the bombing of clinics. A slew of Republican-dominated state legislation, like “fetal rights” bills, aimed at chipping away and eventually overturning all abortion rights has arguably been even more effective. For his part, Obama made clear his opposition to mental health exceptions for late-term abortion bans with the statement that a woman’s rationale for an abortion cannot be just because she feels “blue.”
Some popular Democrats like Wendy Davis have opposed new anti-abortion legislation like the law in Texas. But really, the Democratic Party does not pretend to fight for anything beyond preserving Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion but did not make it generally available. The 1977 Hyde Amendment, supported by Democrats, denied federal funds for abortions for poor women. While rich women can always get an abortion, for black, Hispanic, working class poor women—who are more likely to have unwanted pregnancies—it means risking your life.
Why is abortion such an explosive issue in this society? This safe and simple medical procedure provides women control over whether or not to have children; it is viewed as a threat to the institution of the family and raises the question of the equality of women pointblank. What is needed is mass class and social struggle to ensure that poor and working women have unrestricted access to abortion. For the rights to abortion and contraception to mean anything, the services must be free. Democratic rights are always limited and temporary under capitalism and can only be wrested through determined class struggle. Ultimately, only the destruction of capitalism can put an end to anti-woman reaction.
Women and Revolution
Let’s look at the woman question in countries where capitalism has been overturned. After World War II, following the victory of the Red Army over Nazi Germany in 1945, the state machinery and economic power of the German bourgeoisie were smashed in the East and a state was founded based on socialized property forms—in Marxist terms, a workers state. This workers state was deformed from the beginning because political power did not rest with the working class but with a Stalinist bureaucracy. Nonetheless, East German women had the best status in the world, and even feminists have had to admit that. While women in capitalist West Germany were learning how to be good homemakers and mothers, in East Germany women were employed, highly skilled, highly educated. This reflects the fact that the driving force in a collectivized economy is not the generation of profit. Therefore, the workers state was able to generate full employment of both men and women. Under capitalism, where the goal is to make profit, the capitalists found it useful to train women for skilled industry during wartime, only to relegate them once more to the home as the troops returned.
I watched a documentary on YouTube the other day called, “Do Communists Have Better Sex?” which is about the differences regarding sexual education and the situation for women between West and East Germany. Women in East Germany, known as the DDR, had free contraception, accessible abortion and the best maternity benefits. In the film, you see clips showing how East German women would go to the factories, drop off their laundry and their children with—get this—free childcare! This superior social and economic position was reflected in sexuality. One commentator in the film notes that East German women “ruled in bed” while the church and prudery continued to define the norm for women in the West. In the 1960s on state television in the DDR, masturbation was talked about openly. Compare that to sexual education in the U.S. today, which preaches abstinence, instills fear and guilt and reinforces stereotyping.
That’s not to say that conditions in East Germany were picture perfect. The idea that you can build “socialism in one country” is a Stalinist myth: there is no way to have an egalitarian social order on the basis of material scarcity in an isolated country—or in this case, half a country. The parasitic bureaucracy was hideously politically repressive; moreover it undermined and disorganized the collectivized economy. Women in the DDR were still responsible for a lot of the housework (the “second shift”) and the Stalinists resurrected the family as a norm, called the “socialist family,” a contradiction in terms. Still, the reintroduction of capitalism in 1990 was devastating: it stripped East German women of their economic and social independence, pulling them out of the workforce, bulldozing the health system, dismantling social programs and attacking abortion rights. In a country where women had such high status, capitalist counterrevolution produced widespread immiseration, as it has throughout the ex-Soviet bloc.
I focused on this example because I wanted to drive home another point that was relevant to me personally. To put an end to women’s oppression, you have to see things through the lens of class. When I was in college and started to get frustrated with my Women’s Studies classes because of their non-challenge to the status quo, I desperately wanted to merge my passion for the struggle of all layers of the downtrodden with my passion for women’s rights. I flirted with the idea of pursuing socialist feminism, thinking that these were both for the liberation of women as “two paths of the same struggle.”
But in reality, feminism and Marxism are counterposed—they are based on different classes. Feminism is a species of bourgeois ideology; individuals or groups who try to push “proletarian feminism” are providing a revolutionary cover to a fundamentally liberal program. They either think that after socialist revolution men will still be violent, anti-woman creatures; in other words, all men (not the ruling classes) are the main enemy. Or they think Marxist theory is not sufficient to champion women’s rights and fight against special oppression. I hope I have proven here how, as Marxists, we are inherently women’s liberationists.
Alexandra Kollontai, an early Bolshevik revolutionary, stated in her 1909 work, The Social Basis of the Woman Question:
“For what reason, then, should the woman worker seek a union with the bourgeois feminists? Who, in actual fact, would stand to gain in the event of such an alliance? Certainly not the woman worker. She is her own saviour; her future is in her own hands. The working woman guards her class interests and is not deceived by great speeches about the ‘world all women share.’ The working woman must not and does not forget that while the aim of bourgeois women is to secure their own welfare in the framework of a society antagonistic to us, our aim is to build, in the place of the old, outdated world, a bright temple of universal labour, comradely solidarity and joyful freedom....”
Kollontai wrote this one year after the first celebration of International Women’s Day. Though bourgeois feminists may celebrate the holiday, it is, in fact, a workers’ holiday. It started in Manhattan on 8 March 1908 when women workers marched for an eight-hour day, an end to child labor and for women’s suffrage. On International Women’s Day in Russia, 1917, women textile workers took to the streets of Petrograd and led a strike of over 90,000 workers. Women were demanding bread for their starving families and peace due to the devastating effects of World War I. This strike opened the doors to the victory of the first successful proletarian revolution in history under the leadership of the Bolshevik Party.
Now to conclude on the lessons of history. Prior to the 1917 Russian Revolution, the largely peasant country under the Tsar treated women like beasts of burden; ignorance and illiteracy were the norm and superstition was endemic. When the repressive Tsar was toppled, and the landlords and capitalists swept aside, the working class took state power and ruled in its own interests, expropriating the bourgeoisie as a class. The Bolsheviks put into practice a number of crucial measures moving toward the liberation of women. Women won full political and legal rights, getting voting rights before women in the U.S. Marriage and divorce were made simple and easy matters of civil registration; discrimination against children born out of wedlock and laws against homosexuality were abolished; abortion was legalized; equal pay for equal work was established and women were trained as skilled workers.
The Bolsheviks created the department of the Central Committee for work among women, known as Zhenotdel, and established communal kitchens, laundries and childcare centers, laying the basis for the replacement of the family. The Zhenotdel developed a system of “delegate meetings” of women workers elected by their factory co-workers, designed as a school in politics and liberation. In addition to the journal Kommunistka, the Zhenotdel published women’s pages in many national and local party newspapers, encouraging working-class women to become correspondents and reporters.
The Bolsheviks under Lenin and Trotsky knew that the only way forward to raising the material conditions of the masses was by extending the revolution internationally, especially to countries of advanced industrial development. The young workers state faced grim poverty following the ravages of World War I and a civil war against counterrevolutionary forces which were backed by imperialist armies intent on crushing the revolution. The lack of successful revolutions elsewhere and the ensuing isolation paved the way for the rise of a conservative bureaucracy headed by Stalin, which reversed many of the liberating advances the revolution had gained for women. Nevertheless, the Bolsheviks’ fight for the emancipation of women, despite the later Stalinist degeneration which began in the 1920s, is a testimony to what a world socialized economy could give to the exploited and oppressed worldwide.
We unconditionally militarily defended the Soviet degenerated workers state and the deformed workers states of Eastern Europe against imperialist attack and internal counterrevolution precisely because of the gains of their planned economies. At the same time, we called for proletarian political revolutions to oust the Stalinist bureaucracies, to return to the Leninist program of workers democracy and revolutionary internationalism.
Today, the Bolshevik program for the emancipation of women is carried forward by the International Communist League, of which the Spartacist League is the U.S. section. The full liberation of women and the rest of the oppressed can only come about in a classless society in which the enormous productive social and economic forces are put in the service of humanity, rather than in the pockets of the capitalist class. After socialist revolution, we know that organized religion, the bourgeois family and the state pass into the museums of ancient history. But what will this new society look like? I’ll leave that for another class. But I will leave you with one of my favorite quotes from The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State. Keep in mind that this was written over 100 years ago, but it encapsulates a key element of what could be desired for the future:
“What we can now conjecture about the way in which sexual relations will be ordered after the impending overthrow of capitalist production is mainly of a negative character, limited for the most part to what will disappear. But what will there be new? That will be answered when a new generation has grown up: a generation of men who never in their lives have known what it is to buy a woman’s surrender with money or any other social instrument of power; a generation of women who have never known what it is to give themselves to a man from any other considerations than real love, or to refuse to give themselves to their lover from fear of the economic consequences. When these people are in the world, they will care precious little what anybody today thinks they ought to do; they will make their own practice and their corresponding public opinion about the practice of each individual—and that will be the end of it.”